In this November 2017 photo, U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The brewing China-U.S. trade conflict features two leaders who have expressed friendship but are equally determined to pursue their nation’s interests. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Why China should have chosen honesty in its U.S. trade war

China has launched a new charm offensive to rally support for its growing trade war with the United States.

Opinion pieces being placed in newspapers around the world, under the byline of the local Chinese ambassador, insist that Beijing strictly follows the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) rules-based international trade regime.

They also claim China is adamant about protecting intellectual property rights, always releases honest and accurate reporting of economic statistics and engages in no discriminatory measures in procurement and market access.

As we know, Washington has been slapping tariffs on Chinese imports because of:

  1. The relentless thefts of billions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property.

  2. The flaunting of WTO rules by imposing non-tariff barriers.

  3. Unfulfilled promises to open parts of the Chinese economy to foreign investment.

  4. Imposing arbitrary fees and taxes to inhibit foreign access to the Chinese markets.

In their newspaper articles, the Chinese ambassadors say all four of these reasons are baseless. Clearly these diplomats grossly underestimate the intelligence of Western newspaper readers.

The fact is, representatives of the People’s Republic are just not very good at public diplomacy in the West. Who can forget Lu Shumin, former Chinese ambassador to Canada, responding to a brutal crackdown in Tibet by comparing pre-1959 Tibet with Nazi Germany, and calling the Dalai Lama a dishonest separatist who has been “lying for decades?”

Lu Shumin, China’s onetime ambassador to Canada, compared the Dalai Lama to Adolf Hitler. It didn’t go over so well. (CP PHOTO/ Jonathan Hayward)

Lu told the Globe and Mail that “any remarks made accusing China of so-called human-rights suppression or things in that direction, I would consider that as irresponsible and inappropriate.”

That went over like a lead balloon. Lu remarkably couldn’t comprehend that nobody would buy the idea of the Dalai Lama being in the same league as Adolf Hitler. People were incensed.

China’s full court press to counter American trade sanctions is much more than a tit-for-tat, “you taxed me so I’ll tax you harder” play. It’s just a sideshow to the real issue, which is this: No matter how the trade war ends, the West is no longer prepared to tolerate China’s dissembling and dishonesty in international interactions.

This means not just the terms of trade and investment, but cyber-espionage, subversion of Western democratic processes through covert agents and corrupt policy-makers, North Korea, and any number of murky transactions in developing nations around the world.

My years studying in China

Just over 40 years ago, I became the first foreign student to be enrolled in the History of Ancient Chinese Thought Program, taught in the Department of Philosophy at Shanghai’s Fudan University. (That same exchange program brought future ambassador Lu Shumin to study at university in Canada.)

During my three years there, I was intensively guided through the essence of China’s deep traditions by generous, kind and highly learned senior Chinese scholars.

The author with a Chinese scholar in Beijing in 2007. (Author provided)

It was a great privilege for me. My respected teachers, all educated in liberal institutions prior to the Chinese Communist Party’s assumption of power in 1949, had been made to suffer considerably during China’s Cultural Revolution.

But they were remarkably free of bitterness about their fate. These gentlemen — now long gone, but alive in the hearts and minds of all the students they touched, including this Canadian — possessed great qualities of high-mindedness.

They taught me well that the Confucian ethic is one of open honesty and broad-mindedness. Seeking petty advantage through deception comes at the cost of universal harmony and the common good.

Far be it from me to advise Beijing’s propagandists on how to understand what China’s cultural tradition means in the contemporary context of fractious international relations conundrums and Presidential Twitter.

But there is a lot to be said for the Han Dynasty doctrine of “seek the truth from facts” (later championed by both Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping to serve their own political purposes).

While “honesty is the best policy” may not be a hallmark of the Trump régime, a more honest, less selective and less manipulative adherence to the international norms of the United Nations and WTO would definitely serve China’s interests — and those of global justice, peace and prosperity — a lot better.

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